The answer to that must lie between Dr Singh and his conscience, feels T V R Shenoy.
Years ago, back when I was growing up in the village of Cherai, I heard the parable of the 'Sticks or the Onions.'
'A thief was once caught stealing onions from a field. The village headman offered him a choice of punishment; he could either chew and swallow fifty raw onions in succession, or he could take fifty whacks with a stick. The thief chose to eat the onions, but his stomach started heaving after eating just five, and he gasped out that he would prefer the beating. Five solid swishes later he yelled out that he would return to the onions after all. This went on through the day until the headman smilingly halted both punishments because the thief by then had endured both fifty onions and fifty whacks.'
I heard this story over sixty years ago, and in the six decades since then I have never thought anyone could possibly be so stupid. Until, that is, I returned to Delhi after a long hiatus to watch the gyrations of the UPA government.
The stick they face is the undoubted assault that the Congress must face should it stick to its guns, and present a Lokpal Bill with little or no output from Team Anna. That would immediately unite the Opposition, and perhaps embolden even those Congress allies within the UPA to attempt seizing the moral high ground.
Can you imagine Lalu Prasad Yadav's Rashtriya Janata Dal or A Raja's DMK solemnly castigating Dr Manmohan Singh? Do not laugh, it is quite possible.
The lashing would continue outside Parliament too, in the court of public opinion and possibly even in the actual, judicial, courts. (The Supreme Court has already asked the Delhi police to explain a previous hamhanded action, against Baba Ramdev.) With elections due in various states in 2012 -- giant Uttar Pradesh among them -- the Congress may decide that it is better not to risk the fallout.
This leaves the Congress with the option of swallowing the onions, and there are plenty to swallow.
Frankly, a Lokpal Bill drafted entirely by politicians -- from any party really -- was never going to win public confidence. My friend K N Bhat, a renowned Supreme Court lawyer, put it rather neatly: "Asking politicians to draft a Lokpal Bill is like asking prisoners to draw up plains to build the jail's walls; they will plan escape routes before the foundations are laid!"
Having -- so they thought! -- dodged a bullet by persuading Anna Hazare to break his fast on April 9, the Congress appeared to believe that it could stymie the anti-corruption movement at the table if not on the street. It was at this point that Baba Ramdev -- and it is no secret that some in the Congress saw him as a potential rival to Anna Hazare --threw a spanner in the works.
When the yoga exponent proved too hard to rein in the Congress resorted to the Delhi police. (This just four days after a farce where senior ministers rushed to the airport to receive Baba Ramdev, the Cabinet secretary too in tow!) And with this began the first of the onions that the party must swallow to avoid the stick.
Here is how the onions came tumbling out:
June 5: 'A swami who teaches yoga to the country should not teach us political asanas.' Thus spake Kapil Sibal, the Union human resource development minister, one day after the Delhi police forcibly broke up Baba Ramdev's camp at some crazy hour of the morning, well before sunrise.
The minister piously added that he hoped that the episode had been a warning to other agitators, a clear reference to Anna Hazare, who had vowed to go on another fast if the Lokpal Bill were not enacted by August 15.
June 26: Kapil Sibal announced that 'civil society' would not be used again in drafting a law, adding, 'In the given situation, the government was in, it is a decision that we took with open eyes and I don't consider it to be a precedent.'
July 27: Speaking at the Symbiosis Institute of Management Studies at Khadki, Congress spokesperson and Ludhiana MP Manish Tiwari slammed Anna Hazare, saying, 'He has a myopic vision. I believe that the Lokpal is not an issue.' (For good measure, Tiwari took on his own party's Mani Shankar Aiyar for having called the party headquarters a 'circus', describing his senior as someone that 'unfortunately has a reputation of being a loose cannon on the deck of Indian politics.')
August 14: This was a red letter day as far as Congress attacks on Anna Hazare were concerned, after the veteran Gandhian refused to back down from his proposed fast.
Union Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee, on a visit to Kolkata, told the media that nobody could dictate to Parliament as to on what terms a law should be enacted.
Digvijay Singh, the Congress general secretary, told the world that 'street protestors' could not frame legislation, and that the job must be left to elected lawmakers. According to reports, he doubted that anything more than ten thousand people would support Anna Hazare's second fast.
The highlight of the day was an all-out attack by the Congress spokesperson Manish Tiwari, who accused Anna Hazare thusly: 'We want to ask Kisan Baburao Hazare alias Anna that with what face do you talk of fast against corruption. You are involved in corruption from top to bottom, and we are not saying this, this has been said by a probe panel which was headed by a former Supreme Court judge.'
Manish Tiwari added, 'A few days ago, the Army received an RTI request seeking past records of Anna. The army wrote to Anna to find if he has any objection against it giving those records to the RTI applicant. Anna has not replied to the army's query to date.' (This gave the impression that Anna Hazare's service record was not above board.)
The Congress spokesperson wound up with, 'If someone was suffering from a combination of grandeur and grandstanding, then he needs to be shown his place. That's precisely what we have done today.'
In person, Manish Tiwari is affable and relatively soft-spoken, and, being a lawyer by profession, one can only assume that spewing such vitriol was his party's brief. Competent attorneys follow briefs; great attorneys know they must occasionally tell their clients not to act like fools. Neither insinuation holds any water, and Manish Tiwari's credibility has been badly damaged.
Following Tiwari's attack, Subhash Chandra Agrawal used the Right to Information Act to ask the army itself about Anna Hazare. The response was uncompromising: Anna Hazare never deserted any post, no punishment was ever accorded to him during his years in the army, and that he was 'honourably discharged' after serving for twelve years. The army's response also noted that five medals had been notified to Anna Hazare, including the Sangram Medal and the Paschimi Star. (According to his colleagues, the scar on Anna Hazare's head is the result of a Pakistani bullet.)
As to the corruption allegations, the Sukthankar Task Force -- appointed by a Congress chief minister, mind you! -- concluded that 'it cannot be gainsaid that these offences are relatively minor and are of a technical nature,' and that there was no indication of any malafide intention or dishonest motives of the trustees.
Can there be anything more wounding than to hint that a retired soldier with an unblemished record had behaved dishonourably, or that a crusader against corruption was himself corrupt?
There was a final onion to be launched -- and from the ramparts of the Red Fort no less.
Speaking on Independence Day, the prime minister said, 'There are some people who want to create disturbances in the country so that our progress gets stalled,' if anyone missed the import of that, the prime minister helpfully added that anyone who disagreed with his government's version of the Lokpal Bill 'should not resort to hunger strikes and fasts unto death.'
Was this the final straw?
That evening, Anna Hazare made an unscheduled visit to Rajghat, where he sat before Mahatma Gandhi's samadhi without saying a word. His silence was more eloquent than Dr Manmohan Singh's words of that morning.
The next morning, August 16, Anna Hazare and his team were arrested (for reasons never made clear), and taken to Tihar jail (the same that is now home to A Raja and Suresh Kalmadi). The outpouring of public anger was so fast and so ferocious that the government was on the run from the moment go. (So much for Digvijay Singh's 'ten thousand'!) There followed the classic trinity of 'Order, Counter-order, Disorder.'
There were a few more onions in store, but these were mere bulbs, not full-blown plants. Union Home Minister P Chidambaram spoke of a 'painful duty' in arresting Anna Hazare (hours before all charges were dropped, and while denying all knowledge of the details of the operation).
Rashid Alvi, another Congress spokesperson, raised the bogey of a foreign hand -- 'It needs to be considered whether there is any power which is supporting this movement which wants to destabilise not only the government but the country,' before the party hastily dropped this line of attack.
Each onion must be swallowed before amity is restored.
A start has been made. Ten days after his 'create disturbances' speech, the prime minister told Parliament that his government 'applauds' Anna Hazare and 'respects' his idealism. Oddly, between April and August, the Congress's 'Mr Clean' has never actually faced Anna Hazare. Why is that?
The answer to that must lie between the prime minister and his conscience. As far as the Lokpal Bill is concerned, however, its own miscalculations have left the Congress pondering over another question.
Will it be the stick or the onions?